Monday, November 19, 2012

A little help here?

We had sung quite a bit, and pretty meaningfully. We had been sung to, and had read part of a psalm aloud, in unison. The offering was given, and it was time for the reading of the sermon scripture.

All this without a printed guide to the service. (Don't get me started on that. Today.) The direction through the service was clear enough, and the service simple enough, that we - first-timers - got through without confusion or distraction. The young staff person got up to read, announced the passage, and real well.

And then, here's where a printed order would have helped. Or, in this context, we might have been given a cue or two on the projection screen. But there we were, the scripture read out, and the reader said:
"This is God's Word"

To which the people replied:

Well, actually, the people didn't know what reply to make. We said, in keeping with our church's custom: "Amen." Others mumbled "Thanks be to God." Most, so far as we could tell, didn't realize a response was being evoked.

We sat down, my Karen leaned over to me and said, "Whatever." As in . . .

Reader: "This is God's Word"
People: "Whatever."


Some reflections waiting for the start of a worship service yesterday:

I try not to go to a service of worship - anywhere or anytime - as a critic, a reviewer. That might not ring true, if you have read some of my recent posts. But, really, I don't go "looking for trouble." So, while there would certainly be issues I could take with the service we got to yesterday, that isn't what this is about. I just wanted to contextualize the reflections that I will eventually get to.

We know people at this church, pastoral staff and musicians, and one of the musicians welcomed us within moments of our arrival. The now-expected condolences and questions were posed, vis-a-vis my recent (temporary?!) departure from music ministry. But we sat alone, and while the musicians were finishing their prep and sound check, while the orchestra gathered, I wondered what pastors say is the role of "feelings" in . . .
* understanding and defending truth?
* in doing what one knows to be right? ("obedience" is the old-fashioned word)
* in knowing the will of God?
And what is the role of feelings in "worship?"

I think I am on pretty firm ground when I suggest that most church leaders will say that  feelings have their place in the answers to the first three questions, but it is probably "last place." And in the circles I serve in, most will insist that content has priority in worship. But when it comes to evaluating a service, and when it comes to sorting out what will get people to attend a service, feelings are given a pretty high value. Much higher than in other areas of Christian thought and living. Why is that?

Yes, feelings are important. Yes, worship that appeals only to the head, or to the ascetic [nb: not aesthetic] without an affective element, are problematic in perhaps more dangerous ways. Granted, and like you I don't much relish those as alternatives. But I want to press the question: "Why is a worship service - a single service, or a style of service - judged primarily on the feeling response to it?" And "Where is that taking us? Where will it leave us?"

This challenges me in my own responses to services, especially now as a guest in unfamiliar churches. Am I "objective" enough to get beyond how I "feel," even if I don't "like" the structure, the degree of (in)formality, the music? And if I can't get beyond my feelings here will they take a firmer grip on my ability or willingness to grapple with truth, with obedience, and with action?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Awash in sound

My friend and former colleague, Randall Gruendyke, is the campus pastor at Taylor University, Upland Indiana. In case this post finds its way to his circle, before I quote Randy I want to point out that his comment was made about a decade ago, and is not cited here to portray anything about the current or past situation of chapel music at Taylor.

Hmm. I've never begun a post with a disclaimer. Anyway . . .

Randy made this arresting analogy about highly amplified worship bands. (This will be a pale paraphrase of Randy's always well-spoken observations.) The wall of sound that is produced by a band behind amplifiers is analogous to the "rood screen" in ancient churches. That was the usually ornate screen (wood or stone) behind which the priests did the "real work" of the mass, while the people stood around and waited in front of it. Here's a picture of one of the more famous rood screens still in place:

This is the screen at Westminster Abbey, London. (And while we're here, a little tip: If you're going to Choral Evensong at Westminster, try to get there early enough to get seated behind the screen, where the choir sits. Amazing.)

So, you get the idea. All the important stuff happened behind the screen. The people not only didn't understand the mass when it was not in their language; they couldn't even see what was going on.

Randy's observation was that this is what highly amplified worship music does. It separates those leading the music from those who are supposed to be singing. Often, the visual impact is the same, with amplifiers, keyboards and other instruments between the musicians and the congregation. An altogether apt metaphor, and if you sometimes wonder why so much sound still doesn't help you engage in the singing, just think about it.

But my Karen and I had a similar experience Sunday in a very different context. The robed choir, the organ and piano, the classical orchestra - all suggested visually that this was not going to be a "worship band" service. Nor was it. (In spite of the inexplicable presence of a "worship leader" with a guitar in front of all this. I still don't get that. Was it supposed to make the traditional music feel more folksy?) But it still had its "rood screen" effect. Everything had a microphone, and the whole was amplified through an impressive speaker array. (Though elevated in a very lofty space, it was still visually very present. Sort of like a space station.)

We were awash in sound. The songs and hymns, we wanted to sing. And people were singing. But it became so monotonous.The organ and orchestra never found their way to highlight what each had to offer; the sound just sort of smushed together. The piano would have been completely lost if not for the microphones on it. Also, the violins. But rather than draw out the texture of this rich assortment of instruments, it came out as a bland stew. The impressively large choir also might be a very fine choir, but the microphones did nothing to make it sound other than a bunch of voices singing their hearts out. (Give me a struggling 12-voice choir that can hear and respond to each other, any Sunday morning.)

In the end, while we could actually sing along, the focus still was on what was happening "up front." Not surprisingly, the congregation applauded even after the hymns. Was it, after all, all about what was going on "behind the screen?"

This whole thing about the role of music to guide, lead, coax, encourage the congregation is so important. This weekend I again was reminded that it isn't like one approach naturally gets it while another doesn't. An organ can be that screen of sound, just as much as a praise band. A choir can as much as a guitarist song-leader. The main thing is to know the space we're given for worship, understand how it works best for the voice of the people, and decide how to use the space and musical resources for the best benefit of their singing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


This is not a concession.

I want to remain on record in opposition to the use of projected congregational song lyrics without giving access to a printed melody. In the culture I live in, the ability to read a  melody is not that unusual, and if you want the greatest number of people to engage with a song as quickly as possible, you will take the extra step, the extra time, the extra expense if necessary, to provide that aid.

Don't limit your worshiping community by your own limitations. And don't worry about seeming cool. The really cool kids are doing this. (See Redeemer Presbyterian New York, and City Church San Francisco, for example.)

But if you are going to limit your singing community to reading projected lyrics, then please for the love of God('s people), try to:

* Get the punctuation right.
John Mark McMillan's "How He Loves" was new to me earlier today. I didn't realize I was singing a cool song.
            He doesn't dig poetry.
            He's so unhip that
            When you say Dylan, he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas.
            Whoever he was.
            The man ain't got no culture.   (Paul Simon, A Simple Desultory Philippic, 1965)
 So I didn't know if the words were supposed to be
He is jealous for me
Love's like a hurricane - I am a tree
[as they appeared on the screen]
He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane - I am a tree
[as I now see, online, is what Mr. McMillan wrote, 2009]

Hey you, putting the power-point together for the chapel, the service, the small group . . . Yeah, you! That apostrophe you added matters; it changes the meaning. And, after all, you do want people to sing with the mind as well as with the spirit, don't you? Because, you know, it is a biblical precept of worship. The same thing goes for commas and periods, by the way. Even the properly placed exclamation point. Are you theologically aware enough to employ the semi-colon?

(And for the nonce I'll resist the impulse to digress on whether the song was actually written to be sung by a random group of worshipers and not - you know - the David Crowder Band.)

* Divide the lines of text so that they scan with the musical phrases.
Seriously. If you aren't going to print the melody for us, and unless really I am the only person in the room who has never heard what we're singing, could you give just a little hint at where that musical phrase is going? You might begin by assuming a line/phrase is marked by some kind of punctuation. [see previous asterisk] Please tell me you're not just typing into the ppt slide and letting the auto returns do your work for you. Here I forget which forgettable song (and slide) from earlier today failed on this count, in a big way. For illustration purposes, I am going to pick a song I really like, just to demonstrate. Try to picture these words on a screen:
My soul finds rest in God alone, my 
rock and my salvation; a fortress strong 
against my foes, and I shall not be 
This excellent setting of Psalm 62 is helped along by some fine punctuation (which, I now see, if you're checking lyrics online, you probably won't see. Umm . . . don't take your accuracy cues from random lyric sites, OK?) If you don't know this song - well, learn it! But if you don't, you won't know at a first quick read, the kind of read offered to singing worshipers, where it's headed. But when you see it lined out properly on a screen:

My soul finds rest in God alone, 
my rock and my salvation; 
a fortress strong against my foes, 
and I shall not be shaken. (Aaron Keys, Stuart Townend, 2006)
Then, my projecting-lyrics friend, you will help the people whom you are supposed to be leading in worship. You will help them understand the meaning of this solid psalm setting; and you will help them figure out where the music is heading. And when the next verse comes around - and is also properly parsed on the screen - they will sing it better, more strongly, and with more understanding.

And I won't have to write about this again. OK? Thanks for this little chat.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


My grandparents probably never stopped to think about their denomination's business, nor questioned the nature and leadership of their church's gathered worship. (Just guessing here. I never knew my grandparents.)

My parents questioned their denomination, but so far as I know did not take issue with the nature and leadership of worship. (They're both gone now, so I can't back that up with a personal story.) They were committed to the church they were born into, so that even after it let them down, it took a life crisis for them to even think about changing churches.

My generation wanted change in the church, fought for change in the church, got power and made change in the church. This was, by and large, probably not a good thing. For the most part, as it came to worship, we mostly wanted it to be about "us."

My children's generation grew up in churches that, in fear of losing a generation, made sure church life was "all about them." These are the emerging leaders in the church.

Musing on this now because of a sermon I heard on Sunday. My Karen and I were visiting a famous "downtown" church in a big city. (I am currently not in a ministry position, and we are taking the fall weeks to get around to churches we've never been able to get to.) The service was rich, of a classic Reformed nature, good music, nicely led. Then the sermon. Ah, the sermon. Here the young pastor had a few choices to make. He could do a straight-up exposition of Ruth, chapter 1 (the Old Testament reading and the announced sermon text). He could do a riff on All Saints Sunday (a stated theme for the entire day at this church). He could tell personal stories about his own growing up in the church (which, you know, probably isn't what the average person in the pew might have looked for). What he did, was try to do all three.

Now, I'm no preacher, but I've been around good preaching all my adult life. And I don't think I'm being critical when I suggest that trying to do all 3 wasn't a great idea. It failed on at least 3 levels. (If you get my drift.) But that's not what I am writing about.

No, what struck Karen and me was that here was a young man (I mean, a really young man, and not just by comparison to us) who presumed to instruct a primarily older congregation (and I mean, a really older congregation, even by comparison to us) with a tale about theologically out-growing his home church.  And it struck us as we drove home: here is a case (I'll not say a representative sample) of someone who grew up in a church where from the beginning everything was designed to say, "this is all about you."

It begins in the nursery, where naturally really everything is all about the babies. It continues through grade school, with age segregated worship "experiences" that keep children and parents apart on Sunday mornings. It hits its stride in student ministries, which often also means continued age segregation for the worship hour. (I'm happy to be able to say that the church where I am a member but no longer on staff, does not have age-separate worship services.) Students go off to college and often continue in worship settings that are explicitly age-specific. Young. Everything about the church experience, for so many Christian youth in the U.S., is designed specifically for them and requires no effort to interact with their grandparents' or their parents' generation . . . or even their younger siblings.

Read more about this phenomenon, here. I'm just winging it. It isn't like this generation-centric approach to church life sprang up out of nowhere. 

Increasingly, young ministry personnel are taking up leadership posts of all kinds in churches of all kinds. Is it any surprise that their churches will conform to their needs, experience and taste? My generation accomplished this by force, and mostly made a mess of it. Will the next generation continue this through the exercise of entitlement?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Commonly prayed

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, all semester, the professor begins my first class of the day in the same way. Oh, there are some preliminaries, the occasional wry observation. But when he is really ready, he begins:

Oh Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise. 
Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us;
Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us.
Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain us with your bountiful  spirit. 
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.
[here may be included a brief timely topical prayer - this week, for example, for those suffering on the East Coast]
O Lord, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. And in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The first day, I recognized this - and some of you do, too - as the opening of morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer used in the Anglican communion. I appreciated the gesture that first morning, and wondered where Dr. Kalantzis's prayers would take us in the weeks to come.

But, every class session, this is how we begin. I couldn't be more satisfied, and I look forward to it each time. We're now about 10 weeks into the semester, and I simply don't tire of it. But my heart leapt when, last week, the good Dr. K. prayed before a campus lecture. I should not have been surprised to hear:
O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven;
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, 
O Son of God, O giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds. 
This is the ancient Greek hymn Phos hilaron, and it is the opening of evening prayer, also from Common Prayer.

And I sat in that lecture hall, with these prayers having begun and ended my day, and said to myself, "Yes. This is the spirit of worship that I want to foster and serve." My intimacy with the Book of Common Prayer helps me "fill in the service" in my head - the psalms, the multiple readings of scripture, the wide-ranging prayers for the world and the person sitting next to you. With or without music, but simply if gloriously with music. All this was evoked for me, and as I already said, my heart leapt.

My own tradition gets impatient with "sameness." We don't like to use other peoples' prayers. We throw babies out with bath-water. I guess what I long for is the chance to demonstrate that a beautiful historic liturgy can have an "evangelical warmth." I believe this is happening in a number of settings around North America. I could really get on board with that.